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Charge vs. Security Guard Dismissed

September 7, 2000

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) _ In a case that heightened racial tensions, a judge threw out manslaughter charges Wednesday against a store security guard accused of fatally choking a black man after an alleged shoplifting.

The judge said the victim may have died of a heart problem, rather than asphyxiation.

Dennis Richardson, 29, a guard for Lord & Taylor, was charged with choking Frederick Finley, 32, on June 22 after Richardson and other guards confronted him in the parking lot.

The guards suspected Finley’s girlfriend’s 11-year-old daughter of shoplifting. According to police, the guards said Finley threw a punch and Richardson placed a choke hold on him.

Judge Virginia Sobotka found that the medical evidence was not sufficient to conclude Finley died of asphyxiation. She said Finley had an enlarged heart and the confrontation may have triggered heart failure.

One medical examiner testified that internal bruising and discoloration of the head and neck led him to conclude Finley died of asphyxia. But another medical examiner testified Finley died of heart failure, saying Finley’s lungs were filled with fluid, a sign that his abnormally large heart was failing.

Richardson could have gotten up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

Richardson is black, as was Finley.

Activists who charged that the confrontation had racial overtones have staged protests against Lord & Taylor, accusing it of having black security guards workers scrutinize minority shoppers to avoid the appearance of discrimination or racial profiling.

A day before Richardson was charged, 5,000 to 10,000 demonstrators led by the Rev. Al Sharpton rallied outside Lord & Taylor to protest Finley’s death.

The company has denied engaging in any form of racial profiling.

Richardson showed little emotion as the judge issued her ruling.

``I’m in shock right now. I’m kind of speechless,″ Richardson said after the hearing. ``I don’t know what to say.″

Prosecutor Kevin Simowski said he will appeal.

Geoffrey Fieger, the attorney representing Finley’s family in a lawsuit against Lord & Taylor, bitterly disputed the ruling.

``The actions of the police, the prosecutor and the judge should be proof enough ... that there is an attempt to protect corporate interests over those of the constitutional rights of citizens,″ Fieger said.

``You strangle a man to death and you get away with it. That’s ridiculous,″ he told WWJ radio.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI are investigating Finley’s death for possible civil rights violations. They will decide whether to bring charges when the appeal of Sobotka’s decision is decided.

``If the Wayne County Circuit Court does not reinstate charges, we would then make a decision on whether to bring any civil rights charges,″ U.S. Attorney Saul Green told The Detroit News.

On Wednesday, passersby outside the store appeared divided over the judge’s decision.

``This case put a black mark in the city of Dearborn,″ said Bernadette Drennon, 32, who is white. ``I’m just glad it’s over with.″

Joi Cobb, a black social worker from River Rouge, said she was surprised at the judge’s move. ``I think they should have looked further into it. There should be someone guilty of his murder,″ she said.

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